YEREVAN, ARMENIA — Suppose you’re a pope on a foreign trip, and you know full well there’s one word that pretty much everyone is waiting to hear you say. Also suppose you don’t quite want to say it every time you open your mouth – either because you don’t like having your linguistic choices dictated, or because of political and diplomatic fallout, or because you prefer another vocabulary, or for some other reason.
What do you do?
One option is to allow your hosts to use the word, over and over again, and then to have your official communications channels make sure everyone knows it’s been said. Another is to wait for the right moment, and just go ahead and say it yourself.
On Friday in Armenia, Pope Francis did both.
Heading into his June 24-26 outing, Armenians were straining to hear Pope Francis use the word “genocide” with regard to their staggering losses in the early 20th century under the old Ottoman Empire. Many worried he might not do so after a recent comment on the present situation facing Christians in Iraq and Syria, in which Francis said he prefers the word “martyrdom” to “genocide.”
Use of the term “genocide,” of course, usually drives Turkey into cycles of objections and protest, claiming that what happened was part of a larger war rather than a consciously genocidal campaign of extermination. When Pope Francis used the term in the context of an anniversary ceremony last year, Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Vatican.
In two major addresses on Friday, one at Yerevan’s Apostolic Cathedral and the other at the country’s Presidential Palace, Francis clearly and repeatedly acknowledged the magnitude of the suffering Armenians endured.
He heard his hosts, Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, head of the local Orthodox community that’s basically the national church here, and Armenian President Serzh Sargysan, describe that carnage over and over again as a “genocide.”
Karekin used the term “genocide” four times in the course of a brief welcoming address, while Sargysan used it three times, adding, “We simply want things to be called by their names.”
Both speeches were provided in advance by Vatican press aides, in translation and at the same time the pope’s talks were distributed – which doesn’t quite make them official Vatican verbiage, but which does suggest the Vatican wanted people to know Francis wasn’t running away from references to “genocide” either.
In an address to the political and diplomatic community in Yerevan on Friday evening, Francis recalled that last year was the centenary of the Armenian genocide — the “Metz Yeghérn,” as Francis called it, literally meaning “great evil” or “great calamity,” a term that for Armenians carries much the same resonance as Shoah does for Jews with regard to the Holocaust.
In a small but significant departure from his prepared text, Francis added a reference to the event as “that genocide,” thereby using the key word his audience was waiting for him to deliver.
“Sadly, that tragedy was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples,” Francis said.
The pontiff also added, “It’s so sad, that in this, as in the other two [genocides], the great international powers looked to the other side.”
Earlier in the week, the pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, gave a briefing to reporters that studiously avoided using the word “genocide,” insisting that Metz Yeghérn is “actually stronger.”
“I’m free to use the word, the term that my Armenian brothers use, [and] I think everyone knows very well what it means,” Lombardi said, pointing out that Francis will visit the official Armenian Genocide memorial on the hill of Tsitsernakaberd on Saturday precisely in order to recall the loss of life.
While there, Francis will deposit flowers and also meet a small group of descendants of Armenians who fled the slaughter in 1915 and were sheltered by Pope Benedict XV at Castel Gandolfo, the summer papal residence in the hills outside Rome.
On Friday night, Lombardi said he could not predict what Turkey’s reaction may be to the pope’s latest use of the term “genocide,” but stressed that “the pope always speaks in the perspective of peace, reconciliation, and dialogue among different peoples, nations and cultures.”
“There are many Armenians who have good relations with Turks, and many Turks have good relations with Armenia, people who desire peace and dialogue,” he said.
The pope was especially strong on the impact of the suffering, which St. John Paul II and a former Armenian patriarch described in 2001 as “the first genocide of the 20th century.”
“Having seen the pernicious effects to which hatred, prejudice and the untrammeled desire for dominion led in the last century, I express my lively hope that humanity will learn from those tragic experiences the need to act with responsibility and wisdom to avoid the danger of a return to such horrors,” the pope said.
“May all join in striving to ensure that whenever conflicts emerge between nations, dialogue, the enduring and authentic quest of peace, cooperation between states and the constant commitment of international organizations will always prevail, with the aim of creating a climate of trust favorable for the achievement of lasting agreements,” he said.
Indirectly, the pontiff also acknowledged that a major driving force for the violence unleashed by the Ottomans on their Armenian minority a century ago is because the Ottomans were Muslims and the Armenians are fiercely proud of their heritage as the world’s first officially Christian nation.
“It is vitally important that all those who declare their faith in God join forces to isolate those who use religion to promote war, oppression and violent persecution, exploiting and manipulating the holy name of God,” Francis said, in effect stipulating that the Armenians know that reality better than most.
Francis acknowledged that such anti-Christian persecution is hardly a finished tale.
“Today Christians in particular, perhaps even more than at the time of the first martyrs, in some places experience discrimination and persecution for the mere fact of professing their faith,” he said.
“The Armenian people have experienced these situations firsthand; they have known suffering and pain; they have known persecution; they preserved not only the memory of past hurts, but also the spirit that has enabled them always to start over again,” Francis told his hosts.
In his clinching line to the speech, Francis praised “the courage of the martyrs,” a reference every Armenian would immediately recognize as, in part, a reference to their ancestors a century ago.
In other words, at the end of day one in Armenia no one could accuse Pope Francis of having come here and either avoiding or playing down the magnitude of the country’s suffering, which is so much a part of the national consciousness, and he did once use the word that Armenians believe is the key symbol of sensitivity to their losses.
Yet the pope also did not go out of his way to invoke the word every chance he had, thereby also signaling sensitivity to Turkish attitudes.
It remains to be seen whether that will be enough to head off another diplomatic and political impasse with one of the world’s most important Muslim powers, but at least this part is clear: Francis may not use the word “genocide” every time he talks about Armenia, but he has not put it on the shelf either.